PHOTOGRAPH BY KIRSTEN LUCE
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Plai Thong Bai is about a half century old and famous in Thailand from Chang beer commercials. When rented out for festivals or parties, he’s often painted with designs, some still visible above. In the enclosure where he lives, a chain hobbles his front legs.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KIRSTEN LUCE
MagazineFrom the Editor

Why we’re shining a light on wildlife tourism

Selfie-seeking visitors like close encounters with exotic animals. Our investigation uncovered rampant abuse behind the scenes.

This story appears in the June 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

People love animals. Nowhere is that more apparent than at National Geographic, where photos of animals are among the most “liked” by our Instagram followers, stories about animals drive traffic on our website, and animals are prominent in the pages of our magazine.

But this love of animals can often lead people, unwittingly, to hurt them. This month we explore the thriving industry of wildlife tourism—a way for people to appreciate and support animals when it’s done appropriately but an exploitative business with terrible consequences when it’s not.

We sent reporter Natasha Daly and photographer Kirsten Luce around the world to investigate the lives of captive animals once the selfie-taking tourists go home. What they found will break your heart. In some attractions with unscrupulous operators, tourists have no idea the animals they’re joyously interacting with have been abused. They “don’t know that … the elephants give rides and perform tricks without harming people only because they’ve been ‘broken’ as babies,” Daly writes. “Or that the Amazonian sloths taken illegally from the jungle often die within weeks of being in captivity.”

Even more shocking is her discovery that some elephants at an “eco” resort in Thailand—where customers see animals roaming a property unchained—are the same elephants that, at another attraction just a few miles away, give rides and do tricks, sometimes prodded by a sharp metal hook.

Wildlife-encounter tourism is not new. But examining it is all the more urgent today because of social media. Who among us would not want to cuddle a baby tiger, memorialized by a shareable photo? That is, until we find out the reality: Cubs are taken from their mothers days after birth, so the mothers can quickly be bred again. And no one quite knows what happens to those precious baby tigers once they become unruly teenagers.

As our reporting found, too often this industry takes advantage of people’s love of animals even as it exploits them for profit from birth to death.

With this month’s package of stories on animal exploitation and continuing coverage by our Wildlife Watch team, we hope this complicated, important topic gets the attention it deserves. That’s the first step toward securing a truly happy ending for the animals.

Thank you for reading National Geographic.

Support journalism that shines a light on the exploitation of wildlife by donating to Wildlife Watch.

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.